What price peace? Is it worth sacrificing justice and truth and freedom to have peace and quiet in a troubled land? This is hardly a hypothetical question for knowledgeable students of American history, or even keen observers of current American life. How easily the so-called Patriot Act was passed, taking away all sorts of freedoms and rights to privacy, especially when passing through an airport these days.
And did a Tea Party-like movement rise up and protest the loss of these freedoms and form political groups and back political candidates to change this situation? Nope, not really. Apparently we do value peace and quiet over freedom and justice and truth. If recent events in American history were not already disturbing enough, Robert Redford in his moving drama ‘The Conspirator’ reminds us that expediency and ‘peace at any price’ has been the mantra of this nation in more than one period of our history. Redford lifts up for us the example of the story of Mary Surratt, the only woman hung for war crimes after the Civil War was over.
Mary Surratt was a southern woman who had moved to Washington D.C. and opened a boarding house in order to keep body and soul and family together. Her loyalties were clearly with the Southern cause, and there is reasonable evidence that her son John was involved in some of the machinations surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Boothe. But as for the evidence against Mary—- well that is a different story altogether.
This 2 hour and 2 minute film (PG-13) is deliberate in its pace, and some of the reviewers, who apparently don’t much care for accuracy in court room dramas, have complained about this. Redford gets the characters right, the plot right, the story straight, but yes, perhaps if this film has any faults, it is a bit too slowly paced. The acting is quite superb in this film, including Kevin Kline as Mr. Expediency himself, the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, Robin Wright Penn as Mary Surrratt, Tom Wilkinson as the Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson and a star turn performance by James McEvoy as the lawyer who reluctantly defends Mary, Frederick Aiken (who previously had been a decorated veteran of the Union Army). If you are going to this movie thinking it will focus on the events leading up to the death of Lincoln, that is not the case. The focus is on what unfolded thereafter, leading to the trial of the ‘conspirators’ including Mary Surratt.
The fundamental ethical issues raised in this film are: 1) should citizens (not soldiers) ever be tried in a military court. Boothe of course was a famous actor, and under no circumstances could Mary Surratt have ever been accused of being a soldier; 2) should the Constitution be upheld just as strongly in a time of war as in a time of peace; 3) should the presumption of innocence prevail even in a military court where the rules of evidence are in fact quite different than in a civilian court; 4) should someone like Mary Surratt have been owed a jury of her peers; 5) should the President be able to over rule the decision of a high court judge to issue a writ of habeas corpus which would at least have granted Surratt a second trial, and a civilian one. If your answer to queries 1) and 5) is yes, and no to the rest, well guess what— none of those answers prevailed in Surratt’s case. The rule of law was trumped over and over again by the ruthless desire for vengeance by Mr Stanton and others.
Now war, admittedly is a horrible thing, and it always involves the suspension of all sorts of normal ethics and laws. Many would even say that talking about a moral war is talking about an oxymoron— a contradiction in terms. But the story of Mary Surratt is not a war story, it is a post war story, and unfortunately Andrew Johnson (from my native state of N.C.) was not the man Abraham Lincoln was. He was not prepared to put a stop to vengeance taken in a forensic situation. It is probably true that we will never fully get to the bottom of the story of John Wilkes Boothe and Mary Surratt, but the evidence we do have suggests she was not a conspirator, rather she was a devout Catholic who would not have lied about her innocence. Rather, as a proud Southerner she would have owned up to it, had she been involved. In one of the great tragedies and ironies of post-Civil War history while we all know what happened to Mary Surratt, her son by contrast received a very different verdict and a very different fate.
If you go to see this movie, and you should, keep your eyes focused on Mr. Aikens and his ethical dilemmas and the way he plays the role of the reluctant defense lawyer. It is always good to know that even when the nation is in Hell, there are a few people with strong enough consciences and convictions to wish to uphold the rule of law and fairness and justice even when the prevailing wind is strongly against their doing so. It is no surprise to me that after the Surratt trial, Aikens quit lawyering altogether and became the desk editor of an organization set up to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—- the fledgling Washington Post.
This movie is one of the four or five better historical dramas I have seen in a good while on TV or in the theaters (the fine John Adams epic on HBO comes to mind as well). Even if you are not a Civil War history buff, this movie raises a lot of the right questions that America needs to be asking right now— whether we are thinking about trials at Guantanimo or other issues of fairness and justice.